They are called "generation Y," "the global generation," "the millennials," "the net generation" — even "the dumbest generation."
They are boomerang children who have returned to live in the bedrooms they grew up in — a generation without a purpose or a direction. By societal standards, they have failed to launch.
"Failure is a harsh word; it's more of a delay that we see among a lot of young people these days," Stanford University professor William Damon said.
Damon, professor of adolescent development at Stanford's School of Education, is the author of "The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life," a book published this year and based on research from his Youth Purpose Project.
The Youth Purpose Project, run out of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, is dedicated to studying how youth develop and hold onto a sense of purpose.
Whether termed a failure or a delay, the lack of purpose young people are accused of having isn't a new phenomenon, Damon said. It is more pronounced, though.
"I'm sure that there were always young people drifting, but I think the problem is aggravated today," he said. "There are more young people who are uncertain — in a state of limbo — than in recent generations.
"One in five young people in their teens and early 20s have a real sense of direction. On the other extreme, approximately one in four hasn't really found anything and isn't really looking. ... That leaves a lot of people in the middle; 55 or 60 percent of young people are still looking but haven't found their purpose yet."
For previous generations, an overriding sense of societal purpose defined the era. Children of the Depression and World War II have a sense of national purpose built in, Damon said. There was a direction everyone was heading, and they were heading there together.
"Now we are much more self-oriented; there are a million choices in the world now. We are more out for ourselves, and there isn't a readymade sense of national purpose out there anymore. There is an extended period of search because people aren't just falling into readymade callings."
"When I graduated from college, I really had no idea what to do next," said Eric Brandt, a recently boomeranged Menlo Park resident. "There was never a lot of focus on what you were going to do after college."
Brandt graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., in 2005 with a history degree. He spent a couple of years in Minneapolis as program director and exhibits coordinator at a nonprofit history museum, buffing his not-for-profit development credentials.
"I kind of had this vague, overriding idea that's what I wanted to do, but nothing clear-cut," he said.
That vague idea is more commonly felt than expressed. Even the students who don't clearly see their path may publicly state otherwise, according to Jovi Johnston, a guidance counselor at Gunn High School. There's a lot of pressure for young people to know what they want to do, to be sure and certain.
"Ninety percent of my seniors say they know what they want to do, but they really have 10 different ideas," she said. "They feel pressure from their peers or parents to know."
The pressure can be frustrating and fickle.
"There's a lot of indirect pressure from people," Crystal Espinosa, a Stanford sophomore, said. When she first got to Stanford, she said many of her fellow freshmen seemed to know what they wanted to do.
"I always compared myself to these people and asked, 'What's wrong with me?'" she said.
A bright student from a small town, she excelled in academic as well as athletics in high school. Her teachers and peers had high expectations for her.
"In your first year, they always ask what your major is. They didn't really understand when I said I was undecided," she said. "Now, when I say anthropology and Spanish, they're like, 'What are you going to do with that?'"
Damon categorizes directionless young people into two groups: those with a goal who haven't started the legwork to get there and those who haven't landed upon a goal because they have a wide variety of interests.
"In high school, I had a lot of interests and was pretty good at a number of things," Jason Shen said.
A fifth-year student, getting his masters in biology at Stanford, Shen still isn't sure how he wants to focus those interests.
"I don't want to be a doctor," he said. "I got interested in global poverty and global health a few years ago, and then I got involved in a nonprofit."
He is the executive director of Gumball Capital, a student-run organization that tries to move people towards careers in social entrepreneurship and microfinance.
Still, he said he's not set on heading in that direction.
"There's a big focus on doing what you love, doing what your passionate in. But what if you have more than one interest or passion?"
Damon calls people like Shen "dilettantes" and says they make up a large number of the young people without a clear path.
"They have done a whole bunch of things," he said, "but they can't answer the question, 'Why have they done them?' or 'What are they leading to?'"
Brandt, the former history-museum program director, has tried to balance nonprofit work with his passion for photography.
"I'm gravitating towards nonprofit development, fundraising and management," he said. "But I also have this thing with photography going, and I'm trying to see if I could get a career in that. I have these two different interests pulling at me."
When a Minneapolis bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in 2007, Brandt was there with his camera. And when the Republican National Convention came to town in September, Brandt was there as well.
He has contributed photos to the Associated Press that have been published in dailies across the nation.
In early 2008, he quit his job, flew to Cambodia and worked for four months as a photographer for Kiva, a San Francisco-based microfinance institution. It was a gig that combined his interest in nonprofit work with his penchant for taking pictures. Ideal perhaps, but short-term and voluntary.
So, this fall, Brandt moved back into his parents' Menlo Park home, into his childhood room. He's working part-time at Borders book store while looking for a permanent nonprofit job.
"People tell you to follow your dreams and do what you want to when you grow up," he said. "If I thought that way, I'd try to be a photographer, but I am trying to be practical and earn a living."
There are two aspects to finding a purpose, Damon said.
"It requires that dream, that passion because you need to find meaning and happiness," he said. "But, at the same time, it has to be realistic and pragmatic. It involves getting to know the field and yourself well enough to pursue real possibilities."
Youth is a time when experimentation is expected and accepted; it is the time to really pursue that dream.
"When you're young, you can try out a bunch of stuff," he said, "but you should be moving toward something, not just drifting around.
"At some point you have to say, 'This is what I want to accomplish, how I want to contribute to the world.'"
Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center at Stanford, helps students match their talents to a possible career.
He's been working with students for 20 years and said around 2,500 students make appointments with his center each year.
He's not sure career uncertainty has increased over the last 20 years, but he said the related anxiety certainly has.
"The tolerance for ambiguity has decreased over time," he said, but the ambiguity is normal. "Those super people with really clear purposes — those are rare."
Stanford students are smart, hardworking and dedicated, but "a young person doesn't always know what's important to them," he said.
"A lot of Stanford kids have led a highly structured life to get into the university. It hasn't been as much about what you enjoy doing."
A student works for 18 years to get into a school, and when they get there, they look around and realize they don't know where to go from here; it can be a bit of a shock, Damon said.
"The goals go from being very clear to being very unclear," Shen said.
Espinosa echoed this sentiment.
"My parents were always telling me that I needed to go to school to get a better life," she said. "That was the goal: Get to college."
When she arrived on Stanford's door step with a prestigious Gates Scholarship, that goal was checked off.
"First it was 'Work really hard to get to college,'" Espinosa said, "and now I'm here and I'm not sure what I want to do."
"College used to be a means to get you where you wanted to go, to what you wanted to do," Gunn guidance counselor Johnston said. "Now students focus on college and graduate school and less on what they want to do afterwards."
A first-generation college student, Espinosa said she was never "exposed to people with college educations and careers growing up. So, I don't really know what's out there as an option beyond the doctor, dentist, lawyer track."
This exposure should happen in high school or even middle and elementary school, Johnston said.
Her colleague, Lynne Navarro, agreed.
"We focus on finding a purpose, some, but not enough," Navarro said. "We want students to understand some of everything so they can see there are all of these things out there. Some see them as hoops they have to jump through instead of educational opportunities."
"A lot of the priority of schools is on things kids don't find very inspiring. They are important but they aren't the end; they aren't the purpose of schools," Damon said.
"One school in the area has a very thoughtful program getting kids to think about what kind of person they want to be. They look at all the curricula and see how it fits with what you want to achieve. They don't just teach science but about the lives of scientists, the ethics of science. They engage with exemplars."
Navarro uses guests and real-world examples in her small, niche class called Focus on Success, which is dedicated to helping students set short- and long-term goals and achieving them.
It's a small class, and she said she has the space and time to delve deep into topics and bring in guests to expose the students to different careers and other aspects of the world.
It's a luxury, she said. "In the average class there's not a lot of room to do that."
According to Johnston, high school might even be too late to start the career development process.
"We need to focus on lifestyles and careers at a younger age," she said. "We can take elementary students and expose them to different careers. A lot of that is left until high school, which, along with college and everything else, is a lot of information to fit into four years."
Brandt, Espinosa and Shen agree and expressed a shared desire that the focus on what to do in life start earlier.
"There need to be more opportunities to see what the real world is like," Shen said. "There are so many things you don't even know about. That's why people want to be doctors; they can visualize themselves walking down a hallway in a white coat."
"If there were a curriculum that exposed kids to careers so they could really see them as options, it might help motivate them to think about how to parlay what they're interested in into a job or career," Espinosa said. "Or at least help narrow the focus."
Exploring the options is only part of the equation, Damon and Choy said.
It's also about developing a sense of self and how that is going to fit into the rest of the world, Damon said.
"It is important for people to get an internal compass of their own so they have an answer to the questions, 'What is your life going to be?' 'What is your ultimate concern in life?' 'What are your goals, your higher goals?'" he said.
Students have to make time for reflection, to see what they've learned about themselves, Choy said.
"You have to see where you really fit in, what makes you happy," he said. "I rarely get a student that says balance in life is important."
"A lot of people are driven by the status of a vocation," Espinosa said. "They don't seem to be able to separate happiness from money. Making money isn't my goal; I want to be happy, and being rich isn't as important."
Finding what makes a young person happy may take him or her a while.
"It may take you until your late 20s to figure out what you want to do with your life but if you're moving forward you'll get there," Damon said.
For many on the academic track, graduate school is a comfortable way to delay necessary decision making.
"I'm not sure what I want to do, so graduate school sounds good," Espinosa said.
"I'll spend the next five years doing interesting stuff and then go to business school," Shen echoed.
Graduate school's the new undergraduate school, Damon said. "It may give young people the necessary time to figure things out."
"It's what a lot of liberal arts graduates tend to do — work for a couple of years and go to grad school," Brandt said.
Three and half years out of college, he has tried his hand at a variety of pursuits.
"I have been doing so many different things to see if there is something out there that grabs me but nothing has yet," he said. "I want to focus and find a path, but I want it to be something I like and enjoy."
To find that "something," he has to be willing to take risks and possibly fail.
"Failure can be a positive thing, believe it or not," Damon said. "You learn through failure. ... If you try things out, it doesn't reflect on you as a person whether or not you succeed. You need to develop in kids a positive attitude about failing. Too many parents and teachers don't understand that."
Choy works with students who, for their whole educational careers, have had the mindset of "you have to take a class and get an A to go to a top school," he said.
"And when they do not do well, it can be devastating."
Damon's calling for a shift in mindset for students, schools and society. The current way of thinking about life is not leading young adults on that path to purpose.
"The mass culture operates on very superficial and trivial indicators of success," he said. "People aren't looking deeply enough to understand the real aspirations of young people, where the real talents lie. We're not providing the right kind of guidance to help kids."